‘It’s about respect;’ Local tribe members react to new school ban
KENNEWICK, Wash — After Gov. Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1356 on Monday, prohibiting most Washington public schools from using Native American names, symbols and imagery as mascots, logos or team names, local tribe members are speaking out.
The ban does not apply to schools located within Native American areas or to schools in counties adjacent to Native American areas, as long as the nearest tribe is consulted and authorizes the use of the name.
“There’s lots of ways you can honor the Native American without having a mascot or a name placed on a front property naming that tribe or tribal individual,” said John Cox, a tribal elder with the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians.
Under the measure, school districts would have some time to phase out the mascot, team name or logo, but they would be required to select a new mascot by Dec. 31 to take effect by the end of the 2021-22 school year before the bill goes into effect on Jan. 1.
“The mascot thing and so forth has been used poorly as well as many other things in our system about Native Americans,” Cox said. “It’s degenerating and it’s degrading.”
Malena Pinkham, a Kennewick High graduate, lawyer, and member with the Tri-City InterTribal Organization, said while she’s “happy” the bill was signed, “the damage has already been done.”
“When I was in high school, students at Kamiakin High were dressed up as natives, wearing face paint, mocking native songs and dance styles, and coming up with feathers around their head,” Pinkham said. “It was so embarrassing because those things are important to me.”
Pinkham said her high school experience was “painful.”
“I mentioned as a teenager that I was uncomfortable with it and everyone got really mad saying this is our tradition and our history,” Pinkham said. “No, it’s just a history of racism. I don’t know how to be in a space where it’s being made fun of and I’m supposed to act like it’s normal,”
Pinkham added that while some people may think having ones culture featured as a mascot is “honorable” it can actually be harmful.
“There’s no honor in being someone’s mascot when they don’t understand your culture and they openly mock it,” Pinkham said. “You can’t respect or honor something that you don’t understand.”
Pinkham also noted that the costumes and imagery of Native American culture that are commonly seen in schools also represent only a small time period in history, furthering harmful stereotypes.
So while the bill signing is “a step forward,” members said if someone wants to show genuine respect to the Native American culture, they recommend getting educated.
“Learn about us and our history,” Cox said. “It’s what you’re taught in the tribal community. Respect is utmost, foremost, the top of the latter.”
The Washington state Office of Superintendent of Public Schools estimates there are more than 30 schools in the state that currently use Native American names, symbols or images. A fiscal note attached to the bill notes that costs to school districts would vary based on the number of items that would need to be replaced, including sports and club uniforms, flags, banners and other materials. The proposed law creates a grant program to help support schools that incur costs related to the proposed change.
KAPP-KVEW reached out to multiple local school districts to see how the bill will affect them. Read their statements below:
The Kennewick School District regarding Kamiakin High School’s mascot, “the Braves:”
“The Kamiakin High School name and mascot, the Braves, were selected to honor Chief Kamiakin. The district’s intent is to request a meeting and consult with the Yakama National Tribal Council to seek their authorization.”
The Pasco School District regarding Chiawana High School:
“Chiawana High School derives its name from the Native American word for “big river” or “father of water”.
It is the District’s understanding based on the language stated in the legislation that the new law refers specifically to school mascots, logos, or team names (i.e. “the bears”, “the bulldogs”, “the lions”) and not the actual names of schools. The legislation “prohibits the inappropriate use of Native American names, symbols or images as school mascots, logos, or team names,” but it does not mention or refer to the actual names of schools.
As for Chiawana’s mascot, they are the riverhawks, also known as an osprey. All school logos, whether on uniforms, posters, or school letterhead, portray an image of a bird.”
The Moses Lake School District regarding Moses Lake High School, Chief Moses Middle School, and Frontier Middle School:
“It is an honor to be an invited guest to partner and collaborate with the leadership of the Colville Confederated Tribes. These lands where we live, work, and recreate are part of a rich history. While the issue that may have brought us to the table for discussion is related to the imagery presented through our schools, I leave today knowing that a lot of important work was accomplished and doors were opened. We have committed- and will continue- to honor and respect the history and tribal government. At the same time, we look forward to celebrating the thriving culture of the Colville Confederated Tribes and its people. Our schools can and will be valuable learning centers to teach and grow our students and community.
It might be, rather than just getting rid of the mascot altogether, that it is rebranded or reimaged in a way that is culturally appropriate. We know regardless we have some cleanup to do of certain elements of the imagery or how stereotypes are played out. I also don’t want in any way, shape, or form for this to be another place of divisiveness between our local community perhaps and the leadership of the Colville Confederated Tribes. I want this to be an opportunity for us to really come together and grapple with these complex issues. I am hopeful that we will be able to do that.”
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